Reading Drexlers Engines of Creation in 1990 went into the making of the world in Queen City Jazz my first novel, though the book drew from many other sources: Shakers, ragtime, jazz, American literature, even Krazy Kat. So writes Kathleen Ann Goonan in the Summer 2001 SFWA Bulletin the quarterly of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, in a brief essay about her award-nominated novel Crescent City Rhapsody the third book of her musically structured Nanotech Quartet.

Unsurprisingly, Goonan is far from the only science-fiction writer to take inspiration from K. Eric Drexlers vision of molecular nanotechnology, for it is a vision that connects to numerous preexisting themes of science fiction and offers writers an extraordinarily broad palette of capabilities, all imbued with the appearance of scientific plausibility. Touted by its proponents to be upon us within a decade or few, nanotechnology also gives science-fiction writers a chance to engage in the art of predicting and warning about possible futures. This role as an ad hoc think tank is one that innumerable science-fiction writers and fans take on enthusiastically, not only in their fiction but also in endless earnest panel discussions at conventions, in online newsgroups and discussion boards, and in articles labeled (sometimes optimistically) nonfiction. It is the culture of the intensely technophilic--even those who write of techno-dystopias and apocalypses are enrapt in a love-hate relationship with science and technology. The borders between four dominions--those of scientists, writers, readers and science-fiction fans--are hopelessly blurred, with countless individuals holding joint citizenships.

But it would be a mistake to think that science fictions central role is one of serious prognostication. The question What if...? lies at the heart of science fiction, but what comes after the ellipsis and the answers that stories give are ultimately not science but literature--that strange mix of entertainment and meaningful enrichment of life. The art of any fiction writer is the art of the storyteller. As Kathryn Cramer (writer, anthologist and daughter of physicist and fiction writer John G. Cramer) writes in The Ascent of Wonder:

The majority of science fiction stories are not plausible extrapolations upon our current situation, using available information; rather they are Escheresque impossible objects which use the principles of science in much the same way that Escher used rules of geometric symmetry--the rules give form to the impossible imaginative content.

Antediluvian Nanotech

MANY OF DREXLERS imaginings have antecedents in science fiction and feed into old, potent themes of the genre. Science fiction has long been fascinated with machines in general, such as in the stories of Jules Verne. The absolute control of matter promised by nanomachines is a variant of the dream that Homo sapiens can achieve complete mastery over nature and has utter freedom to shape its own destiny. The dark vision of nanobots running amok is a new wrinkle on the old golem/Frankenstein myth, the dangers of meddling with godlike powers or bringing too much hubris to science. The bright vision of the world, and indeed the nature of humanity, being transformed into something transcendent and new is another science-fiction standby.

Nanotech burst into the collective consciousness of technology aficionados at a good time to interface neatly with the mid-1980s wave of cyberpunk stories, in which characters experience the completely programmable virtual realities of cyberspace. With full-scale molecular nanotech it is not just virtual reality that is programmable. The intelligent agents and viruses of cyberspace become free to roam about in the air that we breathe and within our bodies--a curious inversion of people loading their consciousnesses into machines.


Elements suggestive of now common nanotech themes appeared in science fiction well before the advent of the term nanotech. The concept of microscopic surgery appeared in the 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage novelized by Isaac Asimov. Of course, instead of using molecular machinery built of real atoms, a large scientific-looking contraption magically reduces people and machinery to microscopic scale by shrinking their very atoms, in violation of numerous physical principles. Interestingly, the 2001 novel Fantastic Voyage: Microcosm by Kevin J. Anderson, uses the miniaturization technology of Fantastic Voyage to explore the dormant body of an alien from a shot-down UFO. Lo and behold, the Lilliputian explorers find themselves confronting alien nanotechnology.

Progenitors of nanotech fiction extend back even further. In the classic 1941 story by Theodore Sturgeon, Microcosmic God, a scientist creates a society of miniature creatures (Neoterics) that evolve at a rapid pace and produce technological wonders. This theme is picked up in a modern way in Blood Music by Greg Bear, first published as a novelette in the magazine Analog in 1983 and expanded into a novel in 1985. Despite predating the popularization of nanotech, Blood Music is frequently cited as a seminal nanotech story and included in nanotech anthologies. In the story, a researcher creates intelligent cells, noocytes, that escape from confinement and spread like an epidemic through humanity, destroying it but also seemingly bringing about a transcendental change to a new form of existence. Its the end of the world as we know it, but well all feel fine afterward.

Television has also picked up on Sturgeons concept. In the 1996 Halloween episode of The Simpsons Lisa accidentally creates a microscopic society (ingredients: a tooth, Coca-Cola and an electric shock delivered by Bart) that rapidly advances from the Stone Age through the Renaissance and then far beyond our own technology. The theme is combined more soberly with the modern concept of nanotech in the episode Evolution of Star Trek: The Next Generation which aired in 1989, just three years after Drexlers Engines of Creation hit the bookstores. Boy wonder Wesley Crusher accidentally releases some nanites, tiny robots designed to work in living cells, which proceed to evolve into a highly intelligent society that invisibly infests the systems of the starship Enterprise and starts wreaking havoc. Fortunately, in classic Next Generation style, at the last minute, contact is made with the evolved nanites, and a mutually acceptable peaceful outcome is negotiated: they are placed on a convenient planet where theyll have more room to live and grow. If only every conflict, plague or technological disaster in the real world were solvable with such ease and rationality.

The central feature of molecular nanotechnology, precise manipulation of atoms, crops up in a classic science fantasy of 1965:

The stuff was dancing particles within her[....] She began recognizing familiar structures, atomic linkages: a carbon atom here, helical wavering... a glucose molecule. An entire chain of molecules confronted her and she recognized a protein... a methyl-protein configuration.

[...] she moved into it, shifted an oxygen mote, allowed another carbon mote to link, reattached a linkage of oxygen... hydrogen.

The change spread... faster and faster as the catalysed reaction opened its surface of contact.

The novel? Dune by Frank Herbert, in which computers are banned throughout the empire and spaceship pilots navigate through hyperspace by means of drug-induced precognition. While Paul Atreides is on his way to becoming the messianic ruler of the known universe, his mother, Lady Jessica, takes part in a ritual involving the water of life--a deadly poison related to the melange, or spice, that feeds supernatural powers of intuition and prescience. To survive the ritual, Jessicas consciousness dives down into inner space and slows time to a crawl to analyze the chemical composition of the poison on her tongue and, using a psychokinesthetic extension of herself, transform it into a catalyst that rapidly detoxifies all the rest of the poison, turning it into a potent but not deadly narcotic.


Yet except for the use of psychokinesis in place of a technological framework, the entire process sounds like a nanotech engineer working at a virtual-reality station to design a molecule. Or like a scenario from Unbounding the Future: The Nanotechnology Revolution by Drexler, Chris Peterson and Gayle Pergamit, in which a tourist experiences a museum exhibit that simulates the molecular-scale world, complete with scaling (slowing down) of time. In essence, nanotechnology offers to make Dunes fantasy of complete human control over the self and the rest of the universe into a reality but in a mass-produced industrial fashion rather than through intensive individual training and drug-enhanced psychic powers.

Nanotech is also prefigured in Dune through the Ixians, traders from a rare high-tech corner of the universe who are supreme in machine culture. Noted for miniaturization. Indeed, devices from Dune such as the hunter-seeker, a tiny poison-tipped flying needle, would be completely at home in nanotech stories.

Hot Stuff

NANOTECHNOLOGYS use in science fiction takes many forms, classifiable by a number of measures. The role of nanotech ranges from a central part of the plot to a relatively incidental part of the fictional world. The nanotech may be developed by humans, or it may be a gift from aliens, or it may be the aliens. The technology may work according to well-defined rules, or it may be arbitrary magic, scantily clad in trappings of science. The rules may be expressly mentioned in the text (perhaps even laboriously described), or the work may rely on the reader to tap into a science-fictional consensus reality, acquired from reading earlier stories, of what generic Acme nanotech can and cant do.

Both of the latter alternatives relate to two approaches to presenting technology in science fiction. At one extreme, the text practically contains a research paper on the authors hyperspace theory and blueprints of the first starship (rather like some of the letters Scientific American receives). At the other, famously pioneered by Robert A. Heinlein, the technology is dropped in without explanation: The door dilated. In three words we know we are in a future with strange new technologies, and we are really there because in the future commonplace devices such as dilating doors need no more explanation than cellular phones do today.

When you read a large number of nanotechnology stories in a short space of time, some amusing recurring themes appear. On the one hand, nanotechnology often becomes a means to accomplish anything within the realm of the imagination, while conveniently ignoring the constraints of physical laws. Curiously, on the other hand, these stories reveal some of the actual technical challenges that molecular nanotechnologists might confront if they ever were to execute their designs for real-world nanobots. For example, it seems that most everyone writing nanotech fiction is aware that highly active nanocritters will generate heat, a problem of some concern when said nanocritters are functioning inside your body.

In one of the early stories, the 1989 novella Nanoware Time by Ian Watson, the nanoware has been brought to humankind by seemingly benevolent aliens that look like giant golden centipedes. When the nanoware is injected into a person, it takes root in the subjects brain, supplying him or her with the power to... (can you guess?) harness demons from a parallel dimension. These demons have no will of their own but possess extraordinary powers that the nanowired person can then use, for instance, to shield himself from the vacuum of space, propel a starship across the galaxy, fire bolts of energy for good or ill, and so on. The nanoware is really just a technological cloak for supernatural magic. In another era the alien device would have been some other mind-enhancing black box or injectable drug. Yet because this is nanoware--nanobots that rewire the hardware and software of your wetware (your brain)--one does have to worry about the heat generated by its functioning. A few of the early human volunteers fried their brains before the right parameters for humans were worked out:


Heat was a byproduct of all the rapid molecular activity in the skull while the busy little nanomachines built the nanoware. Thus some brains got cooked.

Vance was among the survivors. [His] brain damage was repaired by other nanos; sort of repaired. Hed been rehabilitated, retrained as a waste recycler.

In one of the many plot threads in the 1997 novel / [Slant] by Greg Bear, a sequel to the landmark Queen of Angels (1990), four people are found dead in an illicit body-modification clinic: they were cooked, literally, when the body-modifying nanotech ran amok. The cause is promptly uncovered by investigators when they examine the jars of pastelike nano on the shelf:

Mary picks up a bottle, reverses it to read the label.[...] The label confirms her suspicions.[...]

This isnt medical grade, Mary says. Its for gardens.[...] Any real expert could reprogram it. Apparently they didnt have a real expert.

Presumably the victims were broiled because a bug in the badly reprogrammed garden-grade nano made it run wild, generating far too much heat in the process.

Later in the book a group of criminals who have infiltrated a huge tetrahedral building make use of some illicitly obtained MGN--military-grade nano. Sprayed from a canister like fire-extinguisher foam, the nano deconstructs objects present in the buildings garage and rebuilds the atoms into intelligent robotic weaponry. During this process the garage heats up like an oven, but not too hot, because at about four hundred degrees, nano cooks itself.

A spectacular case of spontaneous human nanocombustion occurs in one of the most surreal sections of Neal Stephensons tour de force The Diamond Age. A secluded cult known as the Drummers is infected with millions of nanoprocessors. When two processors meet in someones bloodstream, they compare notes, perform a computation and then go on their way: a kind of distributed, Internet-like supercomputer. The computation proceeds mostly at a steady pace, but occasionally it advances in a spurt of activity when myriad parallel threads of the computation are brought together for synthesis by an orgy (exchange of bodily fluids is the key means of transferring these processors and their data between people). The orgy culminates when the nanoprocessors are loaded into one unlucky woman who is promptly incinerated by the heat of the nano-orgy that ensues in her bloodstream.

To access the computations result, the other Drummers mix her ashes into a soup--highly reminiscent of the Martian process of grokking the dead (in essence, ritual cannibalism to honor and fully appreciate the deceased) in Robert A. Heinleins 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land but with the patina of a scientific rationale.

Stephensons The Diamond Age and Bears Queen of Angels are comprehensive depictions of societies completely changed by nanotechnology. In Queen of Angels a large proportion of the populace has been therapied, in which injected nanotech devices infiltrate a persons brain to correct psychological imbalances and weaknesses. Many people undergo extensive nano-enabled body modification, ranging from practical enhancements for their occupation to beautification and the addition of exotic features. A complex tension runs through the society because of prejudices and attitudes about transforms, high naturals, and therapied and simple untherapied individuals.

In Bears world, nano comes in jars like paste. In Stephensons The Diamond Age the key to nano is the feed, a type of nanopipeline that runs into every household, supplying atoms as needed by matter compilers, which are as common as microwave ovens are today. Anyone can obtain free food from public matter compilers, but theyre not up to the cordon bleu standards of Star Treks replicators; rice they can do, but green vegetables come out as a paste. Airborne nanotech is ubiquitous, ranging from almond-size surveillance monitors to microscopic attack and defense craft engaged in a constant struggle, like an immune system battling invaders. On bad days in the poor section of town, this ongoing contest looks like a fog shot through with firefly sparkles of laser light. A sootlike coating composed of casualties from this conflict settles on everything and everyone. Wealthier enclaves, such as that of the Vickys (neo-Victorians), are protected from such troubles by a deep defensive perimeter of airborne nanobots.


Nanofiction is not without humor. The Diamond Age particularly early in the book, is told with abundant wit and drollery. The story opens with the exploits of a spectacularly stupid lowlife named Bud. A parody of the Walkman generation, Bud gets around on in-line skates capable of a top speed of more than 100 kilometers an hour, and his music system is a phased acoustical array splayed across both eardrums like the seeds on a strawberry. Hes sometimes a little hinky on the skates: implanted nanosites incessantly twitch his muscle fibers to maximize their bulk. Together with a testosterone pump in his forearm, it was like working out at a gym night and day, except you didnt have to actually do anything and you never got sweaty.

And isnt that, in the end, what much of nanotech is about? A quasi-scientific way to get what you want, effortlessly and at minimal cost.

There can be no doubt that nano is a permanent addition to the tools of the sci-fitrade. Consider the 2007 edition of the anthology series Years Best SF 12 edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. Nano is right there in large type, the first word on page 1, because Nancy Kresss Nano Comes to Clifford Falls leads off the volume. The piece is a relatively uncomplicated look at how ordinary people, represented by the residents of a small town far out on the plains, respond to the cornucopia that is four nanomachines that have been given to the town. Three little ones are stationed inside the town hall, and the Big Gray stands out front. The mayor is in charge of the machines, and the town folk get to place orders for food, clothing and anything else that appears in the nanocatalogue. It is as if everyone in town--and the rest of the country--has won the lottery. But what happens when nobody has to work to make ends meet?

The other story in the volume to feature nano right in the title is Rudy Ruckers Chu and the Nants. Nants are patented bio-mimetic self-reproducing nanomachines that work together in swarms. Micron-size (upward of 1,000 nanometers), each one somehow has a gigabyte of memory and a processor that runs at about a billion updates per second. The U.S. sends an egg case of nants to Mars, where they proliferate, consuming the entire planet over the course of two years and forming themselves into a Dyson sphere--a shell enclosing the entire inner solar system. Why does the U.S. do this? Because otherwise China would do it first.

The nant-sphere forms a computer with 10 bytes of memory, and president Dick Dibbs and his advisers expect it to be a strategic military planning tool:

Thats why they could short-circuit all the environmental review processes. Ond gave a wry chuckle and shook his head. But its not going to work out like they expect. A transcendently intelligent nant-sphere is supposed to obey an imbecile like Dick Dibbs? Please.

For the short time that it remains under Earthly control, the sphere also serves as a screen on which advertisements are displayed across the entire sky: plugs for automobiles, fast food chains and credit cards, along with promos of Dibbs (who, having undergone a life-extending DNA-modification that made him legally a different person, is now eligible for a third and fourth term in office). A similar swarm of nants is to be released on Earth to convert everyone and everything into a virtual reality under Dibbss control. Ruckers forthcoming novel, Postsingular will pick up where Chu and the Nants leaves off.

These two short stories, singled out in a fairly arbitrary fashion, nonetheless provide a snapshot of todays science-fictional nanotechnology. Nano crops up incessantly, although most works that mention it do not have it on center stage. Themes range from those driven by examination of social issues, as in the Kress piece, to those in which technological innovations run rampant, as in Ruckers. Of course, any one-dimensional scale does no justice to the degree of variety in the genre; science fiction spans more dimensions than string theory.


The ongoing state of real nanotechnology research, for the most part, has little to do with how the details used in fiction evolve over time. The science of science fiction lives in a parallel world to our reality, and what is known to be true or possible in our reality is mirrored only fitfully. And we wouldnt want it any other way.